Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, known for his long and hypnotic essay on the foreign policy doctrine of former US president Barack Obama, recently tried to explain the Donald Trump doctrine. The Trump doctrine, Goldberg concludes, can be best summed up as: “We’re America, Bitch." Drawing a distinction between Trump and Obama, Goldberg writes: “(Obama) was cerebral to a fault; the man who succeeded him is perhaps the most glandular president in American history. Unlike Obama, Trump possesses no ability to explain anything resembling a foreign-policy philosophy."

Despite this sharp contrast, there is a similarity between Trump and Obama. The process of American retrenchment from the world was initiated by Obama. It is being continued by Trump, albeit in a much more haphazard manner. In essence, the US is still recovering from the excesses committed during its unipolar moment. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was the sole superpower. The moment of hubris resulted in ill-advised interventions. Obama’s decision to withdraw was as much a part of his personal doctrine as it was a product of the times. Even if the Republican John McCain had been elected US president in 2008, some element of American retrenchment would still have played out.

Trump’s style is more brusque. He cares little for what Washington’s liberal commentariat thinks. In his remarks, he has been less charitable to leaders of American allies than he has been to the presidents of Russia, China and, of late, North Korea. After the Singapore summit with Kim Jong-Un, Trump is set to meet Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. Trump had earlier set the cat among the pigeons by talking of expanding the G-7 (Group of Seven) to G-8 by inducting Russia. Nothing gets the goat of Washington’s liberal intelligentsia more than Trump’s words of praise for Russia and Putin.

But it is not just words. Trump can now be credited for decisive actions—whether one likes those actions or not is another matter. He has pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In addition, he has threatened to pull the US out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

After the Singapore summit with Kim, Trump announced a suspension of joint military exercises with South Korea. Trump’s words and actions have weakened the US’ security alliances in Asia and Europe. This is giving countries like China, Russia and North Korea a considerable degree of latitude to expand their influence in the region.

But a glance at Obama’s tenure will show why none of this is new. It was this growing desire for retrenchment coming from Washington during Obama’s time at the helm that allowed Russia to annex Crimea and China to move into contested islands in the South China Sea. If the proliferation tendencies among regimes in Iran and North Korea have increased, they also are not disconnected to America’s desire to be left alone. An internal US government report had in the mid-1970s drawn a link between reduced “political barriers to proliferation" and “movements toward a multipolar world and decreasing credibility with respect to security guarantees". The full import of suspended US-South Korea military exercises now becomes clear.

Obama chose not to enforce the red lines he himself had outlined with respect to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The little support that rebels in Syria received was not enough to challenge Damascus, especially after Moscow decided to throw its weight behind Assad. The West’s campaign against Russia for annexing Crimea did little for Ukraine. Obama also turned a blind eye to large-scale brutalities in Yemen.

Trump is carrying the Obama legacy forward at least in this respect. As a result, US allies are feeling insecure. Chinese President Xi Jinping is trying to exploit this opportunity to place his country at the apex of the international order. It is no wonder that India too is feeling the heat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Wuhan and Sochi for informal summits with Xi and Putin should be seen in this context. It is definitely true that Modi has nothing to show for his Wuhan gamble. China remains as hostile to India as it was before. There is a need for India to look at the US partnership beyond Trump; Modi can look to Japanese President Shinzo Abe for some inspiration.

Trump may indeed be a threat to the liberal international order but his emergence itself is a consequence of the America before him. It is difficult to talk of the Trump doctrine without talking of Obama’s legacy. Just as it is difficult to separate Obama’s doctrine from the wars George W. Bush had initiated.

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